CHAMPAIGN — The corner of Main and Market streets has had a lifespan that mirrors downtown Champaign itself.
Up to about 1897, according to city historical maps, 48 Main St. was an empty lot on a block that included a livery stable, a pool hall, a supply house and an agricultural implements company.
The 1902 map shows that a harness shop and a "vehicle repository" had been built at the corner, a sure sign that central Champaign, the commercial hub of a largely rural area, was booming.
The 1915 map describes the site as a four-story brick building with the Miller Harness Co. on the ground floor, vehicles on the second floor, manufacturing on the third and storage on the top floor. (The top two floors were removed in the 1930s after they were condemned).
In 1917, an ambitious young newspaper publisher, David W. Stevick, moved his Champaign Daily News office and printing press there from its longtime home about 100 yards away at Main and Walnut streets.
For almost exactly 100 years, the southeast corner of Main and Market had been home to a bustling operation that was part retail, part office and part manufacturing.
But no more. The building's second life as the home of a daily newspaper has ended. Its new owner has plans to turn 48 Main St. into a retail, restaurant and apartment center, not unlike buildings downtown that are a century younger.
Last week, salvage crews removed about 300 tons of steel from an addition east of 48 Main, taking out pieces of the giant Goss Cosmo press that was virtually the last connection between the corner site and its 100 years of newspaper history.
But the real ending had come more than three months earlier.
Witnessing the end
For 41 of his 60 years, Rob Findlay had been a pressman at The News-Gazette, starting in 1976, when the newspaper was printed on a battered old letterpress that had been purchased years earlier from a Chicago newspaper.
A year later, the Cosmo was installed in a new addition to 48 Main. Findlay and a host of other pressmen produced millions of copies of The News-Gazette, Chicago Tribune, Daily Illini and other newspapers on that behemoth for 40 years, pampering it through tens of thousands of press runs.
All of that ended on the morning of Sunday, June 25, 2017, when the beast was shut down for the last time.
Findlay wasn't working that night, but he came in to witness the end. His wife, Sharon, whom he had met while working at the newspaper, snapped a photo of him alongside the blue, ink-stained printing works.
Just like his father, who had been production manager at the Peoria Journal Star, was there when they shut down its old press about 15 years ago.
"Two years after he retired, that Peoria press that's going to start to print us now, he was the guy who got to go down there and shut off the old newspaper press. Then they walked across the room and somebody pushed the button and the new press started. He got to be there," said Findlay.
For the first time since September 1852 — two years before the railroad came to Champaign County — a newspaper isn't being printed here. It's printed on that press in Peoria.
It was the end of an era for the Findlay family too.
"My dad worked at the Journal Star. My grandfather was a pressman at the Journal Star. So we were a newspaper family like others are plumbers, electricians. I started at the Champaign paper right out of high school. I graduated on a Wednesday and started here on Monday.
"My younger brother Brian, he served his apprenticeship at the Bloomington Pantagraph and now he's a journeyman pressman at the Indianapolis Star. It's just a family trait. That's what we do."
But like The News-Gazette, the Pantagraph, Springfield's State Journal-Register and six other dailies and a host of weeklies are now printed in Peoria and trucked back to their hometowns for distribution.
It's the way of the world in the belt-tightening newspaper industry.
"I can't complain," Findlay said. "I raised a family. Worked here a long time and brought them through school. Bought houses.
"We saw what happened to the Chicago Tribune. We saw the newspaper trade shrinking. We saw the internet coming in. I knew what was coming down. My kids asked me why I never got them a job down here. I told them it isn't going to be around forever. We saw the writing on the wall. It was just a matter of time."
It wasn't that long ago, though, that The News-Gazette's pressroom was literally working overtime. Between 1985 and 2007, the press daily printed as many as 36,000 copies of the Tribune, as many as 57,000 News-Gazettes and more.
There were 24 pressmen and two paper handlers on staff (compared with 13 pressmen at the end).
"We went through so much paper that it took two guys just to keep the paper coming in," said Bob Brown, who was the pressroom foreman at the end. "The paper was coming from an old warehouse behind Vriner's (confectionery on Main Street). It had a small capacity for the amount of paper we were going through, so we were constantly filling it up and getting four or five rolls out at a time.
"When we had the Tribune, we also had the Danville edition (of The News-Gazette) and city and suburban runs, so we were printing three different editions of our own paper plus the Daily Illini. It was a lot of work, fast-paced, and that night crew was hopping."
"You were busy from the time you got here until you left," added Gary Edwards, who was the on-site coordinator for the Tribune for five years until he became a News-Gazette pressman.
At the peak, he said, the Tribune sent out papers from Champaign to all of downstate Illinois and as far east as Oxford, Ohio, west as Columbia, Mo., and south as Paducah, Ky.
There are still jobs for experienced pressmen, if you're willing to move to Indianapolis or Louisville where, Findlay said, you can get a $1,200 signing bonus and two weeks' paid living expenses.
"I want to keep doing this, but I don't want to relocate. I'm going to have to retire," he said.
"You're going to go to nights. You're going to be on the bottom of the seniority. You're going to be hanging on in a layoff-situation status," Brown said. "That's not very practical for someone that has roots."
"You're basically starting all over again," added Findlay.
So he has retired and continued his hobby of rebuilding motorcycles. And he and his wife plan to move to Alabama this winter.
Brown, 61, has retired and is living in Urbana, spending time with his granddaughter here and his mother in Bloomington. He's thinking about getting a part-time job.
It's a tougher call for Edwards, who is younger than his co-workers.
He's interviewing for manufacturing jobs and hopes to get hired within the month.
"I'm 59, so I'm not really old enough to retire. I'm going to find something to do and I'm going to use the resources that are available to find something else. I still want to work," said Edwards, who lives in Mansfield.
The pressmen came in the day after the last press run and, like an embalming, drained ink and oil from its mechanisms.
"It was just a challenge to keep the old hunk o' junk going and to get another edition out, to find out what was wrong and to fix it," said Brown, the foreman. "It was interesting work."
"We took good care of that press," said Findlay. "We had good foremen in charge. They bought tools for us. We bought parts from everywhere."
"Yeah, we went scrapping all the other old Cosmos that were being shut down over the last 10 years," Brown said.
"You had a lot of men here who were very mechanical. We kept it good and we kept it running for many years," Findlay said.
Dismantling the press
Dismantling newspaper printing presses is a full-time job for Doug Holladay of Jupiter, Fla., and his crew.
"This is our 67th press since 2008," said Holladay, who had run an auction company until he discovered the money in tearing out printing works. "I started this when the Palm Beach Post called me to auction off some stuff. The price of scrap metal was very high then. It's not as high now, but it's still a good business.
"I'm in this full-time now, but I'm in the fourth quarter. I have three years of work ahead of me right now, three more years of jobs if I don't take anything else."
After their work on the old News-Gazette press, said crew member Charlie Milani of Point Pleasant, N.J., they'll be off to Alton, then South Bend, Ind.; Orlando, Fla.; and Boston.
"There's plenty to do," said Milani, who spends most of his time on the road, returning to New Jersey only for holidays. "It takes an average of a few months for each of these, a month and a half for small ones and several months for big ones.
"Pittsburgh was an eight-month job," Holladay said. "This is a breeze compared to Pittsburgh. That was a tough one."
Coming to 48 Main
48 Main's third act began in January, when the building and surrounding property was sold to Bubin Properties LLC of Champaign for $1.77 million, according to county tax records.
"We are planning a project. It's going to be retail, restaurant and apartments," Janet Bubin said. "The oldest part (48 Main) will stay and then we will replace the warehouse (an old brick building that fronts on Market Street) and the newer parts (pressroom additions to the east)."
Several years ago, Bubin and her husband, Barry, remodeled the 1920s-era White Line Laundry building at 723 S. Neil St., turning it into condominiums.
"We intend to restore the oldest part. It's going to be beautiful, just like we restored the White Line. I will try my best to keep it," she said of the 115-year-old building. "We are working on the project. I don't know how long it will take, but it's going to be beautiful."